The Vancouver Sun

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Lotte Davis: AG founder’s philanthropy fills an empty nest

When the second of her two daughters moved out of the family home, Lotte Davis embarked on a project that would make her a mother again — to dozens of young women.

The co-founder of Burnaby-based AG Hair (husband John is her partner), Davis was accustomed to making things happen. Once she decided on a direction, it was full steam ahead.

“I was looking at our (business’s) books and realized ‘we’re actually stable now, 15 or 16 years into our business. And we’re making money. So it’s time I can do something,’ ” Davis recalls.

And that something was a call back to Africa where she was born and hadn’t returned to since her family emigrated to Canada in 1960. This time it was Kenya, rather than South Africa, where she landed in 2008 to begin her work facilitating education for African girls.

Living in South Africa during the apartheid era, Davis recalled witnessing “some significant atrocities” as a child and continual injustice toward people. Those experiences stayed with her. Living in Canada in the 1960s and ’70s, she was keenly aware of  “that same sort of discrimination” against women.

“Both of those things really formulated who I am,” she asserts.

Wanting to work with a homegrown, African-based NGO, Davis teamed up with The Flying Doctors.

The NGO workers took her to the Kibera slums in Nairobi where the conditions and extreme poverty appalled her, but after she saw the  school, it was clear that was what she wanted to focus on.

“I saw this school and I knew that I was going to do this for the rest of my life. It was cobbled together with corregate and mud — just horrendous condition. So I had to figure out how I was going to get $50,000 to rebuild this school to … a six-room school on the piece of property that they had,” she says.

Davis went back to her marketing and executive team at AG and they developed promo packages and then directed those profits into the philanthropic initiative that became Women Leading Change.

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“The first year we raised $90,000. We had African (AG product) packages with African girls on them. We took all the profits, $5 from each pack, to Africa,” Davis says.

Eight years on and having formed her own NGO — One Girl Can — Davis is seeing the first of “her” girls graduate university this September.

“Women Leading Change built schools in Africa. Five schools with that same NGO. … (but) I became dissatisfied with someone else building our schools. They weren’t on time. They weren’t delivering on their commitments. They didn’t have a sense of urgency. They were making huge mistakes and not reporting back to me. The communication was bad.

“I thought if ‘I’m going to make a success of this I’m going to have to do this myself.’ So I formed my own NGO. I couldn’t do it under Women Leading Change because for Revenue Canada it’s too connected with my brand so I created One Girl Can, which is registered with Revenue Canada.”

Now supporting more than 100 girls in secondary schools and universities in Kenya and Uganda, One Girl Can pays all their school tuition and living expenses for boarding. Unlike primary schools, students have to pay $500 for secondary school education. Many of the schools are in rural areas where farmers don’t earn much more than that annually, Davis says. So the drop-out rate is high, especially for girls for whom education is not as valued as it is for boys. And if they go home during the school year, they often don’t return. Boarding ensures the girls finish their school year.

“Women Leading Change had built some elementary schools,” Davis explains, “but now I only focus only on secondary schools because that’s where you’re going to make the most impact: Get those girls into careers, jobs, making their own salary and into positions of influence. Then you’re going to start seeing things change. Our purpose is to alleviate poverty for women and help create gender parity.”

The new project for the organization is to raise $175,000 to build four dorms and three washrooms for a school in Kaleefi, north of Mombassa on the coast. The government does provide the teachers but it’s up to NGOs like One Girl Can to build infrastructure. Davis says they stay with the same schools for years providing ongoing support.

“If you want girls to get into university science programs, you have to build science labs,” she says.

Davis is looking forward to seeing the first university students graduate this September. Being in Africa, creating mentoring programs has helped her forge real connections with the girls. She will not only attend the graduation ceremony but she is the commencement speaker. Davis admits to being extraordinarily proud of those grads — as any devoted mother would be.

Davis is hosting an event Thursday, April 21 at The Imperial — the second annual #IWant2Be fundraiser — to generate support for 500 more girls. For information on the event or the organization, go to: onegirlcan.com

Original article published in The Vancouver Sun, April 19 printed edition and online.